Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Importance of Catching Strikes

We're going Twins-related again (and graphics-free today), and then yet a third Twins post tomorrow, probably, and back to regularly scheduled programming with a non-Twins gameblog on Friday morn.

If you have Extra Innings, or MLB.TV, or live in Minnesota or central Florida, try to take some time out to catch an inning or two of the Twins-Rays game tonight. Not because I expect it to be a great game, really; they're two pretty interesting teams, I think, and Kazmir is on the hill, but I don't expect it'll be making Lar's Most Interesting this morning or anything.

But, see: Mauer is set to be back for Friday's game, and the Twins are off tomorrow, so this should be the last chance you get for quite a while to watch Jose Morales catch.

After a rough start, I've come around on Morales. He's a switch-hitting catcher, which is rare enough in itself (there's a chance he might move into a tie for 48th place tonight on the all-time-plate-appearances-by-a-switch-hitting-catcher list, with 50), and he can hit a little. But that's not why I want you to watch.

He might be the worst defensive catcher since Matt LeCroy, and that's kind of entertaining -- his throws to second seem to stop for cheese and crackers somewhere above the mound, and he's lost a couple of very routine foul pops -- but that's not it, either, not really.

No, I'd like you to watch part of this game because I'd like you to notice how Morales catches each pitch. That's it! See, as I'm sure you know, most professional (and college, and a lot of high school) catchers practice a technique called framing the pitch, whereby you subtly nudge your glove back toward the strike zone as a close pitch comes in, hoping to get your pitchers a few extra called strikes over the course of the game. (Little white lies make up about 40% of baseball, if you haven't noticed.)

Morales, I've convinced myself, does exactly the opposite, stabbing at pitches that should be strikes and effectively driving them well out of the umpire's idea of the strike zone. I've seen pitches that defined the very concept of "down the middle" called balls because Morales almost falls on the pitch, pushing it down toward the batter's ankles as he catches it. Just watch and see if you see what I see, I guess, because I can't believe I haven't heard anyone comment on it.

Like I said, I like Morales. But he's very likely going to be getting an all-expenses-paid trip to Rochester tomorrow, and this is something he's going to have to work on. Not only is it frustrating to watch, but an extra ball here and there can make a much bigger difference than most people realize.

Say you have an average AL hitter on an 0-1 count. If the next pitch is a strike (and called such), you have the hitter at a huge disadvantage; the American League as a whole hit .172 with a .245 SLG on PAs with the last pitch coming on 0-2 in 2008, and just .185 with a .274 SLG in PAs in which the count was 0-2 at any point in the at-bat! Meanwhile, the league hit a shocking .330 BA/.519 SLG swinging on 1-1 counts.

Look at those numbers again...I think everybody knows that the count is important, but that important? An average hitter becomes an average-hitting pitcher on an 0-2 count, and the same hitter becomes an MVP candidate when he swings on a 1-1 count. So if Morales stabs at an 0-1 pitch and turns what should have been a strike into a ball, he's essentially transformed the hitter from Roy Oswalt into Lance Berkman (if the hitter swings at that pitch, that is -- the stats after a 1-1 count are much closer to the overall league average, because the possibility of a strikeout comes back into play -- but still: would you rather face a league-average hitter or Oswalt?).

I don't really believe in the surpassing importance of catcher defense; I don't think having a guy with a cannon arm or superior wild-pitch-avoiding ability is going to win that many games for you. Matt LeCroy could have caught for my team just about any time, back when he could hit. But from watching Morales and looking at those stats, I'm starting to believe that whatever else he can or can't do, a catcher who doesn't know how to frame a pitch can lose his share of ballgames for you.

Do any other catchers do this? I feel like framing is such an ingrained practice that every single professional catcher does it without drawing attention, but maybe this sort of shortchanging one's own pitcher is more common than I think and I just haven't been paying attention? I'm sure there's a study to be done there (adjusted called strike percentage for catchers against average, or something)...


  1. OK, so I'll be watching for this tonight (assuming Morales plays). And you're right that, if he is stabbing at the pitches, Twins coaches need to work with him to cut that crap out. However, I think we may be overstating the importance of this phenomenon just a bit. Yes, if a strike is borderline enough to be called a ball, and if that results in an unfavorable count for the pitcher, the catcher has essentially tipped the balance of the at bat. But we're probably talking about no more than 1-2 ABs per game being adversely affected by the catcher's technique. And even then, there is still a high probability that the batter will still make an out (Lance Berkman does 60% of the time). So I guess my point is that, while it's technically possible for a catcher to lose a game this way, it's not anything like a regular occurrence, and it's far fewer than you'll win by carrying a switch-hitting catcher who's hitting .375/.405/.450.

  2. Right, absolutely. I'm very impressed with Morales overall (and his excitement over scoring the winning run last night was pretty awesome), and I'd kind of love it if some other team were interested in trading something of value for Redmond at this point. On balance, even with the stabbing, he (Morales) looks like an awfully good backup catcher right now.

    But my impression has been that this happens much more than once or twice a game. I'm kind of overcritical of the umps during Twins games anyway, and I know the CF camera gives you a skewed view of the strike zone, so I could be wildly wrong. I'll watch it more closely tonight (Gardenhire has already said Morales is starting, I think, but he could change his mind or something) and see if I still feel that way.

    Even if it is only 1-2 ABs, though -- if the Astros were allowed to have Berkman hit (again, that is, in addition to his normal turn in the lineup) in place of the pitcher, once or twice a game and 140-150 games a year, don't you think that would lead to a couple extra wins? Of course, it won't always happen on an 0-1 count, but every pitch that's a ball rather than a strike has a pretty huge impact on the batters' chances.

  3. I hadn't ever thought of that, Bill. But then again, like you, I may never have been paying attention to a subpar catcher enough to recognize it. TCM is right in that, for the most part, it probably doesn't hurt too much, as long as the umpire is only doing it on borderline calls (which probably flirt back and forth between balls and strikes anyway). If, like you said, though, the umps are calling very obvious strikes as balls because of this, then it makes things a lot worse. Alas, I don't have the means to watch Morales catch tonight, so I won't be able to make a call. I'm glad you brought up the point though... another something new to think about.

    Oh, and thanks for the shoutout... I briefly considered the Kazmir matchup as something to point out, but the Greinke and Johan starts seemed a little more interesting...

  4. As a follow-up, from what I was able to watch last night, Morales didn't do this at ALL aside from one or two very slight stabbings. He almost over-framed, like he was doing a caricatured impression of a catcher framing a pitch. Either (a) he's been reading this blog; (b) I'm out of my mind; or (c) the coaches gave him a talking-to between Tuesday night and Wednesday night. I'm 105.2% sure (a) isn't the case and more-than-usually certain (b) isn't, so good on the coaching staff!